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Women’s Health, Hormones, and Ayurveda

Fatigue. Mood swings. Memory fog. Bloating. If you’re feeling stressed or have energy fluctuations during your menstrual cycle you’re not alone. Just as Western medicine talks about cycles in the production of estrogen and progesterone through ovulation and the menstrual cycle, Ayurveda talks about how we are governed by different doshas (energy principals) at different times during our menstrual cycle—in fact right from childhood, puberty, menarche to menopause and in aging gracefully. Understanding our imbalances, or vikrati, and managing them naturally helps us manage our health preventatively, pre-emptively and proactively and alleviates conditions like endometriosis, PCOS, dysmenorrhea, anemia, menstrual disorders, hot flashes, bloating, weight gain, having to take artificial hormones, going through invasive surgeries, and basically struggling through our personal and professional lives.

Women differ from men in the ability to give birth and in India, the birthplace of Ayurveda, are honored as “Shakti” (Powerful Divine Energy). Women experience many transitions and cycles through life and the ebb and flow of hormones; as our lifestyle has become more stressful and unnatural this has led to different types of StreeRoga, menstrual abnormalities or Asrgdara  and yoni vyapat; the many health disorders women face. How can women regulate their hormones naturally to improve health and wellness?

“Hormones will come into balance when our lives come into balance,” to quote Claudia Welch, MD, doctor of Oriental medicine and Ayurvedic Practitioner (from her book, Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life). But what are hormones in the first place?

What are Hormones?

Hormones are chemical messengers transported to different parts of our body to regulate and stimulate life processes, growth, reproduction, metabolism, sexual attributes, emotions and personality traits; essentially governing how we think, feel and act. The way our body seeks to maintain its homeostasis or balance is through the regulation of hormones.

What Hormones Govern Women’s Health?

Hormones are classified based on their chemical nature or action. Women are governed by the regular hormones like the stress hormone, cortisol, digestive hormones like leptin and ghrelin, sleep promoting hormone like melatonin, by oxytocin which isn’t just the ‘love’ hormone but also governs social prejudice, thyroid hormones like thyroxine which regulate metabolism, mood regulating hormones like serotonin and the hormone that manages blood sugar, insulin etc. Estrogen, progesterone and prolactin are primary female hormones and we also have some amounts of testosterone; in addition Luteinizing hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) stimulate normal follicular growth and ovulation. It is also theorized that women’s cycles are tied with nature and the lunar cycle. Female hormones govern reproductive and breast health, energy levels, libido and fertility.

Hormones and Ayurvedic Correlation

Hormones were not referenced in ancient Ayurvedic texts directly and it was in modern medicine, in 1905 that Ernest Starling coined this term. In Ayurveda, health is about balance; about bringing the Doshas back into balance and about being healthy in our own Prakriti (natural body constitution) – which is akin to the regulation of hormones. Hormones ebb and flow for the dialing up and down of various body processes as do doshas. The very definition of health in Ayurveda is about the doshas, dhatus (tissues), agni (digestive and metabolic fire), and malas (excretion) being in balance and one’s senses, mind, and spirit being pleasant (“Sama dosha sama agnischa sama dhatu mala kriyaaha| Prasanna atma  indriya manaha swastha iti abhidheeyate” —Sushruta Samhita).

Hormones are considered biochemical converters and are mostly correlated with Agni (or the digestive and metabolic fire) and often specifically with Dhatu Agni (Dhatu agni is present in different tissues and is used for the metabolism in these tissues and creation of subsequent tissues and finally, Ojas or vitality which contributes to our Vyadhishamatwam or immunity). Ayurveda also talks about two regulatory principals, “like increases like” and “opposites balance each other” which again is akin to homeostasis. Similarly, we can draw parallels between the Majja dhatu (CNS), the manovaha srotas (brain/mind) and the pineal-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. And between endocrine glands and chakras.

But essentially, when Agni goes out of balance we experience the complications produced by hormone imbalances. Hypothyroidism, estrogen dominance; all of these conditions are dealt with in Ayurveda through developing a protocol for management of imbalances in (doshas, srotas or channels and) Agni and Ama (toxins).

Why do hormones (and Agni) fluctuate?

Stress, unhealthy diet, inadequate sleep, irregular lifestyle habits and environmental toxins are some of the reasons for the fluctuation of hormones. Some of this is also a natural process, for instance aging and menopause. Ayurveda can help smoothen those kind of transitions as well.

Methods of achieving balance in Ayurveda

Join our Women’s Health workshop to learn how to manage hormonal imbalances. Here are some of the things we will go over.

  1. Know yourself. One size doesn’t fit all. The food that suits one woman is completely different from another. One may need to exercise a lot more and another needs more of a soothing regimen. Find out what your Prakriti is and how it governs various aspects of your life and health!
  2. Manage Agni. Understand how to manage your digestive and metabolic fire and reduce Ama; hormones are correlated with Agni, the fiery principle and you may find that at certain times eating spicy food is aggravating them. That principle is called Nidana parivarjana; understanding and alleviating the cause of Agni going out of balance based on your Prakriti.
  3. Honoring the three pillars of Ayurvedic health. Learn the principals of Ayurvedic health, how to optimize Nidra or sleep, Aahar or nutrition and Vihar or lifestyle. And to align with the natural and cardiac rhythms of Dinacharya (daily regimen) and Ritucharya (seasonal regimen).
  4. Strategies to de-stress. Learn about principals like yoga, breathwork and meditation to de-stress. No one has said it better than Dr Vasant Lad, “We know quite well using laymen’s understanding that stress is very much a ‘fight or flight’ physiological state of being. In the same manner we know that aggravated Pitta [hot, penetrating, sharp] qualities leads to both the inflammatory process from a biophysical perspective and aggression from a psychosomatic perspective. The pituitary gland is the director of the endocrine system. The music of life is played in different time and rhythm by the various endocrine glands. Ayurveda uses herbs to support the supervisor and other glands to promote harmony in the function of the body. When all are working in concert together, the manager communicates easily with the different granthi (glands). Then the body’s music is harmonious and elegant.”
  5. Touch upon herbs and therapies. Shamana (palliation) uses various herbs and lifestyle regulation and Shodhana (cleansing) relies on therapies to achieve hormonal imbalance. Herbs like Shatavari, Ashoka, Shilajit and Ashwagandha are great for women’s health and there are cleansing protocols that can be mild, regular or detailed like Panchakarma which again can involve therapies like Uttara Basti and Abhyanga.

We often put our health on the back burner and neglect it. The women’s health workshop teaches about regulating our hormones, understanding and listening to our body, aligning with nature,  managing menstrual health, attending to breast care, skincare, haircare, self-care, prenatal, antenatal and postnatal care, menopause management, weight management, and learning how to go through transitions smoothly and age gracefully. Now what could be a better milestone in honoring the feminine principal and optimizing our wellness and life’s potential?! And don’t we women deserve it!!!